About the Author
John Christopher was the pseudonym of Samuel Youd, who was born in Lancashire, England, in 1922. He was the author of more than fifty novels and novellas, as well as numerous short stories. His most famous books include The Death of Grass, the Tripods trilogy, The Lotus Caves, and The Guardians.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Prince in Waiting ONE
FOUR SWORDS IN CANDLELIGHT
THE ARMORER’S FORGE WAS EAST of the river, in that part of the city called Chesil. It was a large, cavernous building, its floor of ancient stone cracked in places but all of a piece, dark except where the great central fire sent sparks springing up toward the square hole in the timbered roof. In the dimness the dwarfs moved here and there to the clang of metal on metal. They did not look up from their work when I came in. I stood for a moment by the door, watching and accustoming my eyes to the light. The Armorer Dwarf was on the far side of the fire, stooped over the big anvil. I went to stand beside him.
“Health, Rudi,” I said.
He did not answer at once. He took a sword off the anvil and held it between himself and the fire, lifting it up and down slightly to judge its trueness by the shifting gleam of light. He nodded and gave it to the dwarf who stood beside him, balancing the blade on his palm and offering the hilt. Then he turned to me.
“Health, Master Luke. How is the world outside? Freezing yet? Your cheeks look as though frost has stroked them.”
“It’s cold enough. A north wind still.”
“A pot of mulled ale, would you say?” He called an order to a dwarf apprentice who went off roll-gaited into the shadows. “Come and sit with me, Master Luke, and tell me how life goes in the city.”
My eyes followed the sword which had been taken to the whetstone. The dwarf there treadled with his foot and the wheel went round. He brought the steel edge to it and bright sparks flew.
“Is that . . .?”
“For the Contest? No, those are already made and burnished. Would you see them?”
He lit a candle, thrusting the wick into the fire’s heat in a way that would have scorched my flesh, and took it to the wall where swords hung waiting collection. The four made for the Contest rested apart from the others. They were also smaller, no more than two and a half feet from hilt to tip. Rudi took one down and handed it to me. The hilt fitted my grasp. I swung it lightly in the air.
Rudi watched me. He was big for a dwarf, close on five feet in height, and he did not have their squatness of figure to so marked an extent as was usual. His arms were brawny, muscled from his work, but the lower part of his body might almost have been human. His face was broad, brown and wrinkled, his hair and beard white. He said:
“Being chosen for the Contest is not everything, Master Luke.”
I did not answer but swung the sword once more and gave it back. He hung it carefully on its hook.
They were not, of course, the swords that would actually be used in the Contest. Those were of wood, unpointed, capable of prodding or sweeping an opponent off his horse but not of penetrating the stiff leather jerkins they wore. But at the Contest’s end each of the Young Captains would be given his real sword, one of these four. That nearest me had a red stone in its crosspiece that winked in the candlelight. It would go to the winner of the Contest, the conqueror.
Pots of ale were brought to us. Rudi offered me his own seat, its high back carved with the figures of past Armorers, but I refused it. I sat on a stool and sipped from the pewter pot. The ale was hot and sweet, flavored with spices. It warmed my throat and belly but did not lift the black depression from my shoulders.
Rudi said: “You would have been young for it.”
“No younger than Matthew is.”
“But his father is cousin to the Prince.”
He drank deeply and gave his pot to a dwarf for refilling. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “You take things hard, Master Luke. It is a failing, if I may presume to say so.”
I would not have taken such a criticism from any other dwarf, but no other would have made it. In the past I had often taken troubles to Rudi and had good counsel from him. This counsel, too, might be good, but I got no comfort from it.
The Contest was part of the Fair which, in mid-March, was meant to mark the end of winter’s grip, the coming of spring. (Though year by year, it seemed, the cold stayed longer, the trees were slower in budding.) In it four sons of Captains led their troops against one another in a series of skirmishes on the Contest Field. To be chosen one must be between thirteen and fourteen years of age. My thirteenth birthday had fallen two months ago.
This year three of the four contenders were obvious choices. There was Edmund, the Prince’s second son. There was Henry, whose father, Captain Blaine, stood high in the Prince’s war council. There was also Gregory, son of Captain Harding, and the Hardings ranked with the Blaines in distinction. And not only rank was in their favor. They were older than I—Henry would be fourteen a week after the Fair—and known to be good fighters. Matthew, on the other hand, was three weeks my junior and I could beat him any day at swordplay or jousting. But his father, as Rudi had said, was a cousin to the Prince while mine had been a Sergeant ennobled on the field of battle, a commoner born. My hopes of taking the fourth place had always been slim, but they had been hopes. And dashed three days ago when the herald cried the news at the palace gate. Matthew was to be the fourth Young Captain, and wear the sword afterward.
Rudi said: “It is not much help to tell anyone that he must bear his disappointments, but it is a truth that has to be learned. Some find it more difficult than others.” His pot was returned brimming and he drank. “So they must school themselves harder.”
“You can say that,” I said, “as Master Armorer.”
He nodded. “Master Armorer. And dwarf.”
“But . . .”
I stopped. His words had startled me. If he had been a polymuf I might have understood. They, after all, were the lowest of the low, servants to men, landless, holding no property except at a master’s whim. These things, as much as their deformities, set them apart, and while many fawned, some glowered. Disgusting to men, their condition must be hateful to themselves.
But dwarfs had pride, not just in their crafts but as a race. For the most part they bred true and could trace their families back for generations, often further than proper men. They had houses, small-holdings, polymuf servants. They could amass wealth and loved to dress their dumpy womenfolk in silks and decorate them with bright jewelry and heavy gold chains. They could not bear arms and so could not be ennobled, but they were, and knew themselves to be, essential to the life of the city as workers in metal and leather, weavers, brewers, grooms to the stables—all kind of necessary crafts. They could rise to positions of high status. Rudi himself had a seat at state banquets: below the second salt but at the Prince’s table.
He said: “Even though you do not lead a troop at the Contest, next year you will be squired. In time you will be a Captain like your father.”
“Rudi,” I said, “would you have wished to be a warrior?”
I still could not believe it. I had heard dwarfs talk, and never known such a thing even hinted. They saw their kind as the builders and producers of the city’s wealth, war as a sickness that afflicted proper men, laying waste to the land’s prosperity. I had heard one say once that if there were only dwarfs all cities would be at peace and grow rich.
Rudi finished his second pot and laughed.
“A warrior, Master Luke? When I am Master Armorer? And will die at last in my bed, with no scars on my body except the small scars of my trade. But you would find it hard, I think, to make swords for other men to use. There are disappointments in all men’s lives, even those who have achieved their ambition, and there are compensations. You are young and strong, and gaining skill in arms. You will go far in the Prince’s service, and prosper. Not to be chosen for the Contest is a small thing to bear.”
It was true, I supposed, but it did not help. I looked past him at the four swords on the wall, only dimly visible among the shadows that moved as the fire rose and fell with the blowing of the bellows. I had worn one of them in imagination all winter, sometimes the one with the red stone winking in its crosspiece. I had rejected that particular part of the daydream as futile, but the other had seemed possible. Having to abandon it was bitter.
Rudi threw his pot to the assistant dwarf and stood up.
“There is work still to do,” he said. “Come, and I will show you how to put an edge on steel, in case a fairy touches you in the night and your legs shorten.”
· · ·
When I left the forge I crossed the river. There was confusion on the bridge, with carts jammed together and men shouting angrily, smoking the chill air with their curses. An overloaded cart had overturned and the way was blocked. The river, pouring violently from the millstream, ran free and turbulent at its center but the verges were rimmed with ice and downstream, between the grazing meadows, the ice spread right across from side to side. Farther down still it was thick enough for skating; or had been yesterday, and there could be no thaw with this sharp wind. I meant to go there in the afternoon but the morning had worn away and my chief thought was of dinner.
My home lay higher up in the city, among the houses that surrounded the Prince’s palace. I did not go that way, though, but turned right along the street that ran parallel with the river for a while, and was called the River Road. The house into which I went was small but well kept, shutters and door painted bright blue, window sills and flagstones underneath them scoured and whitened. Bedding hung from the open windows at the top and would do so until mid-afternoon, when mattresses, sheets, blankets and eiderdowns were taken in for the beds to be made up and heated with the wrapped bricks that now lay at the back of the hearth. Everything was spick and span and in good order. This was my Aunt Mary’s house.
She was not truly my aunt, but my father’s first wife. They had known each other as children and he had married her when he was a young warrior. They had a son, my half brother Peter, whom I called cousin. Riding to war with the Prince (the old Prince, our present Prince’s father) my father had seen a farmer’s daughter, my mother, whose beauty had amazed and confounded him. It was in that campaign that he was made Captain and so could divorce his wife, on petition to the Prince, and take another. He divorced my Aunt Mary and brought his young bride back to the city, and the next year I was born.
He had made provision for his first wife and child. He would have done so even if the law had not required it because he was a just man. Moreover, although he no longer loved her, he respected my Aunt Mary and came to her house often, not just to see his son but to talk to her and listen to her advice. And I, from my earliest days of roaming abroad, treated her house as my second home.
In some ways, even, I preferred it to my own. It was smaller, pokier, but clean and sweet smelling. My aunt had only two polymuf servants, my mother eight or nine, but the two were closely watched and supervised, the eight or nine for the most part slack and grumbling. From time to time my mother, in despair, would have my father dismiss one or more and get others, hiding in her room while this was done, and would make resolutions that in the future everything would be different. It never was. I heard my father say one day in exasperation that no one could have imagined such a thing—a farmer’s daughter who knew less of running a house than a lady of five generations’ idleness. She wept, and he forgot his annoyance in comforting her.
She was beautiful. At thirty she had the skin, the face and figure of a girl. Her likeness hung on the walls of half a dozen great houses, including the palace itself: Margry, the Prince’s painter, had had her sit for him a score of times. And yet she aroused no spite or jealousy among the ladies of the court. Everyone recognized she was without malice and therefore she provoked none. I had seen her petulant sometimes but never angry. For the most part she was happy, talkative, eager to please and to be pleased. She liked sunshine and pet animals and glancing at her own beauty in the glass.
My Aunt Mary was very different. She was gray-haired and had a long harsh face scored with years of work and brooding. She was deep-natured. She did not make a show of her feelings—she spoke little and smiled less—but their strength was shown in small things: a brief condemnation of that person, a rare word of praise for this. Of all men she most respected my father and continued to treat him as master of the house which he had left when he divorced her. Toward others, with a single exception, she was reserved. That one was her son, my cousin Peter. Him she loved with the depth and fierceness of a river forced to run between narrow banks. Even this she strove to hide, but it could not be hidden.
She would have accepted me because of my father—it was his house and his son, though by another wife, must be made welcome in it—but I fancied she liked me a little apart from that. She was strict, as she was in everything, and I would never have dared to go to her table with unwashed hands as I had sometimes done at home. But she showed me some kindness, and somehow my black moods sat on me less heavily in her house. It was not that she indulged me in them, if anything the reverse, but that my misery seemed less important in the presence of her watchful austerity.
This morning she greeted me with a nod and told me that dinner was almost ready. I had scented it, a stew whose rich smell made my appetite clamorous. At home the polymuf cook used the best of meats and vegetables but the stews were thin and tasteless. I went to the kitchen to wash and saw one of the polymufs scouring a pan. (My aunt did her own cooking but kept her servants busy with cleaning and polishing.) This was Gerda; she had short arms and the mark of an extra eye on her forehead, though it had never opened. She bobbed her head to me without ceasing her work. My aunt allowed her servants fair periods of rest but required good labor the rest of the time.
I was at the table and eating when Peter came in. I heard him tethering his horse outside and he pulled off his big leather coat as he entered. Gerda brought a bowl of hot water, soap and a towel, and he washed in the hall as befitted a grown man. He was eighteen, a Sergeant under my father’s command, soon to be made Mister as the junior Captains were called. When he had finished he took the seat at the head of the table, which was his except when my father dined here. He said to me cheerfully:
“Have you heard the news, Luke?”
“Matthew Grant went skating this morning and broke a leg.”
I looked up quickly and saw him laughing. I flushed and turned back to my dinner, for which, suddenly, my appetite had gone. Aunt Mary said:
“Do not tease him.”
Peter said: “You are not brooding over this, Luke, are you? You would have had no chance of lasting beyond the first round. You would have been cut down in a few minutes and earned nothing but jeers.”
He had seen that the jest had hurt me and was doing his best to put things right. I knew he would not wound me except by accident. He was slow-moving and amiable, a smiling contrast to his mother’s dourness. Not slow in thought; his mind was sharp enough. Except where people were concerned. There he did not look below the surface, accepting th...
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